Ancient Greek is a bit like a crossword puzzle, perhaps more like a double acrostic. It is economical: in general, it takes four Greek words to translate eight English words. If you are a fan of Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Aristophanes, and Euripides, you adore the poetry and are also intrigued because the Greeks are not like us. We read from the perspective of Americans in the twenty-first century, so our interpretations do not always match those of the Greeks.
Classics geeks have the advantage of reading the real thing in the real language. At some point, every Greek student reads Euripides’s Medea (in Greek). And not only were we hypnotized by Euripides, we thought we might like Medea as a person. At one point she affirms, ” I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.” Very dramatic. We feminists loved it! She delivers brilliant speeches, but along the way we forgot she was a wicked witch: she cut up her brother into tiny pieces and scattered them on the ocean to slow down her father in his pursuit of Jason; and she killed her own children. And more.
These days, I prefer Greek comedy, but I must say the experience of unraveling the jokes is weird as well as surreal and funny. You don’t sit down and read Greek. Oh, no. You pore over dictionaries and commentaries and work to find the right words. I was tickled pink, as my mother would say, when a note in a commentary explained that “Tartessian eel”(now there’s a baffling phrase!) is “a delicacy for Athenian tables” (from Tartessos, Spain). Then the commentator refers us to Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Fishes. These notes are so much fun – and I especially enjoyed the reference to Thompson.
Greek dictionaries are a source of entertainment this summer. My inspiration for reading comedy is the new Cambridge Greek Lexicon, a much-needed supplement or alternative to Liddell and Scott, the scholarly Greek dictionary written in the nineteenth century which is still used by scholars – and the rest of us. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon is a beautiful two-volume boxed set, and the books have blissfully biggish print and modern definitions. Mind you, Liddell and Scott is useful, but the print is tiny and the definitions of the words often quaint. I am thrilled to have both “brand-name” dictionaries now!
The Cambridge Greek Lexicon has a brisk, business-like approach to to updating definitions. For instance, my old Liddell and Scott defines the word kobalos as an “errant knave” or “impudent rogue.” Love it! But the Cambridge is concise: the definition is “scoundrel.” And isn’t that better English?
Like Netflix, Greek comedy abounds with vulgar jokes. The Liddell and Scott obfuscates the meaning with circumlocutions – and then they make no sense. The Greeks love toilet humor, but don’t look to Liddell and Scott for enlightenment. The word engkezo was new to me. First I consulted Liddell and Scott, who use the phrase”to be in a horrid fright at.” The Cambridge comes right out and says: “shit oneself.” Now I know.
There is also a joke with the word kusthos. My abridged Liddell and Scott does not include this word, so shocking is it. And the complete Liddell and Scott dictionary defines it with the Latin pudenda muliebria. Thank you, Liddell and Scott, for your wisdom! Fortunately, the Cambridge straightforwardly defines it as “female genitals” or “cunt.” Personally, I prefer the word vulva… but now I understand the smutty joke.
And so the Cambridge Greek Lexicon facilitates my journey through Greek. If, like me, you wear bifocals, I recommend the Cambridge with its larger print – yes, size matters! – but hang on to your Liddell and Scott, too.